After years of major upgrades to accommodate automobiles, infrastructure improvements in the San Diego-Mexico border region are about to shift decidedly in favor of planes and trains. And observers say there are multiple implications for commerce and business competitiveness in the cross-border area.
Developers at a recent downtown forum, presented by the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute, said they plan to move forward later this year on two separate, multimillion-dollar projects: a $90 million regional expansion by Pacific Imperial Railroad Inc.; and the first of what will be $1 billion in planned new aviation and commercial facilities at Brown Field Municipal Airport.
Arturo Alemany, president and CEO of Pacific Imperial Railroad, said work is expected to begin later this year on improvements to several portions of its southwestern rail system, including its Desert Line. That segment provides freight services for manufacturing facilities in the Tijuana-Tecate region of Baja California and passes through eastern San Diego County.
The Desert Line runs adjacent to about 650 manufacturing facilities in the Baja region, about 14 miles south of the international border. Major companies operating in that area include Hyundai, Mattel, Bose and Samsung.
Alemany said about two-thirds of the privately funded improvements to rail and freight-processing facilities, to be completed within 18 months, are taking place on the Mexico side of the border, with the remainder planned on the U.S. side. Desert Line improvements have received endorsements from local organizations including San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, and South County Economic Development Council.
$35 Billion in Freight
The railroad CEO said the improvements are needed to alleviate inefficiencies involving still-slow cargo truck traffic at the border, which creates delays for goods being shipped from Mexico to major ports including Los Angeles and Chicago. Pacific Imperial cites data from the U.S. Department of Transportation indicating that the total trade value of freight moving across the U.S.-Mexico border by truck at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry was more than $35 billion in 2013.
After often waiting hours to cross that border, Alemany said, many truck drivers must then endure the 150-mile trek to Los Angeles, via congested interstate highways and the LA area’s own clogged roadways.
From a competitive standpoint, Alemany said, California and the U.S. will reap more benefits from improving infrastructure links with Mexico than from continuing to invest in lopsided trade arrangements with China.
“There also will be opportunities for business development when the Desert Line is improved,” he said, referring to companies that might locate operations near the 70-mile stretch that is being upgraded. Improvements will eventually extend the Desert Line to join up with Union Pacific Railroad in Plaster City in Imperial County, further improving the local region’s cargo rail efficiency.
To alleviate pressures on the landlocked San Diego International Airport, local developer Richard Sax said he is looking to replicate at Brown Field Municipal Airport what his company did at the county-run McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad. That included establishing a new fixed-base operations (FBO) facility geared to corporate-owned aircraft, with related amenities geared to business owners.
Goal Is Commercial Setting
What’s planned at the San Diego city-owned airport in Otay Mesa, however, is on a much bigger scale, spanning 331 acres in multiple phases. Sax said the goal for Metropolitan Airpark is to establish a commercial setting where corporate aircraft owners not only park their planes at on-site facilities with a high level of design and services, but are also attracted to locate their own business offices there on a full-time basis.
“FBOs have traditionally been seen as gas stations for planes, with the offices being an after-thought,” said Sax, who heads Distinctive Projects Co. in Carlsbad, which is part of a larger partnership known as Brown Field International Business Park LLC.
While the Brown Field facility itself will not be processing cargo, Sax said the project could serve a growing contingent of business executives whose firms will be doing business in the border region.
Serving the business community was among the goals of the recently opened Cross Border Xpress (CBX), a privately funded, $120 million passenger bridge and terminal linking Otay Mesa directly with Tijuana International Airport.
Elizabeth Brown, chief commercial officer for CBX, said both business and recreational travelers will be targeted as operators look to grow awareness in coming years of the facility’s location and convenience factors.
With rising use of the facility, there will be opportunities on the U.S. side to develop other commercial amenities on the property where the cross-border facility sits, Brown said. CBX currently occupies less than half of a larger site that spans 55 acres on the northern side of the border.